Monday, May 6, 2013

theatre review VENUS IN FUR, George Street Playhouse, April 28

David Ives' play Venus in Fur was a pretty big hit in New York two years ago.  It started its life Off Broadway, then moved to a Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club and then transferred to a different Broadway theatre for a commercial run last Spring.  The play is making its New Jersey premiere at the George Street Playhouse in a production that runs through May 18th.

Playwright and director Thomas (Mark Alhadeff) has just ended a frustrating day of auditions, trying to find the woman to play "Venus" in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel "Venus in Furs."   It is a stormy day outside the rehearsal studio but the storm outside has nothing on the hurricane that is about to enter the rehearsal room when Vanda (Jenni Putney) shows up.   Thomas' first impression of Vanda is that she is just like every other girl he's auditioned all day- all form and no substance, believing that the play is all about S&M and sex since the word masochism comes from Sacher-Masoch's name, but Vanda soon shows there is more beneath her exterior than Thomas can only begin to imagine.  The two begin a cat and mouse game all about seduction and domination where roles are frequently reversed and one never really knows what is real and what is not.

Jenni Putney and Mark Alhadeff
Now for a play that is all about sex and sexual role playing it is interesting to note that there is no skin or sex that really is ever shown.  Instead the focus is on the intense relationships at the center of the characters in Sacher-Masoch's novel, Thomas' play within the play and in Ives' play as well and how those relationships can instill power but a power that is often up for grabs.  Ives does a good job in creating two realistic characters as well as an interesting set-up, with an audition for a play about domination with the two characters trading off who is dominating who, but overall it isn't that controversial or even titillating and didn't really say much to me as far as you'd think a play with these modern themes about sex, sexuality and sexual roles should.

Putney as Vanda gets the more juicer role to play, or roles in this case since she not only at first comes across as clueless, tough and extremely vocal but once she begins to audition she becomes someone else entirely different.  Putney's ability to transition easily between these two "roles" as the audition process goes forward and the scenes are broken up between audition moments and a discussion between Thomas and Vanda about the play, sex and Thomas' personal life, is especially refreshing.  Putney easily gets across a clear distinction between these two characters and is an outright hoot as Vanda the actress.  Alhadeff was the understudy for Thomas in the Broadway run of the show last year so while he might have more experience with his part than Putney, his is the more "weaker" of the two roles and less forceful, so the fact that he comes across as more subservient is what I believe Ives had envisioned.  We saw one of the first previews of the show and while there was some chemistry between the two actors, I'd expect there to be more as they get more performances into the run.

Jenni Putney and Mark Alhadeff
 Creative elements are nice including Jason Simms’ set that sets the scene perfectly in a run down studio with exposed brick walls, discarded chairs and equipment and filthy, large windows.  All of which nicely show off Thom Weaver’s lighting which is only heightened by Bart Fasbender’s sound design to show off the thunderstorm brewing outside the studio as well as the storm of seduction taking place within.

Direction by Kip Fagan is nuanced and light, but also forceful and direct when necessary.  And while Alhadeff and Putney are fine for the parts, with each more than able to handle their own in the often changing roles the two play of dominant and submissive, there is far too much shift in tone that happens too abruptly and too many unanswered questions.  Does Vanda have a pre-conceived plan or agenda?  Does she already know who Thomas is before she enters the room or is she just a very quick study?  Is Thomas' play autobiographical?  The answers to these questions are all left up to the audience to decide which makes the play ultimately unsatisfying in the end.  It is an intriguing work but one that wears thin, and considering it is a one act play that runs just over 90 minutes that means it gets old really fast.  At first we're interested to know exactly what is going to happen to these two characters and exactly what Vanda's plan is, but with so many questions unanswered and a play that meanders on a bit too much, even though it is smartly written, I was happy when it was over.

Official George Street Playhouse Site

Interviews with Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy who starred in the play on Broadway last year:

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